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A.I. and virtual reality may propel future of retail

Sharon Gaudin | Feb. 5, 2016
With new tech, see yourself on a mountain top from a store floor, or browse store aisles from your couch

So what technologies do retailers need to focus on? Here's what some major players had to say.

Virtual reality

Generally, the first technology that many retailers bring up when asked what will be important to their business in the next five to 10 years is virtual reality.

reuben arnold virgin atlantic
Virgin Atlantic
Reuben Arnold is senior vice president of marketing and customer experience at Virgin Atlantic.

"Virtual reality or anything that helps the customer understand what they're buying is going to be important," said Reuben Arnold, senior vice president of marketing and customer experience at Virgin Atlantic Airways. "Virtual reality can explain more of the emotional side of it. You're able to put yourself in that experience, and it's more about how you feel and not just about what you're buying."

Virgin Atlantic has begun using a virtual reality experience and is working with Microsoft to develop not only the goggles needed but a Windows 10-based app. The experience, which the airline is using at trade shows and corporate customer meetings, is designed to let the customer see what it would look like and feel like to travel in Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class cabin.

"We usually show photos and talk about benefits," Arnold said. "But we pride ourselves on the experience and how you feel when you fly with us. We wanted to bring the experience to life. We were looking for a new and engaging way to show you how it feels to fly with us."

That's just the beginning for virtual reality in a retail setting.

Bouchard, who spoke at the recent National Retail Federation Big Show in New York, said she is watching the advancements in virtual reality technology and trying to figure out where and how The North Face can use it.

She can envision an in-store customer using a virtual reality system to see what it would be like to stand on top of a mountain and look down over the valleys below. VR could also be used to inspire customers to hike or ski more, which would prompt them to buy more jackets, boots and gear.

For Emmons at Neiman Marcus, advanced virtual reality is the ultimate way to blend the digital and physical worlds.

cal bouchard north face smaller
Cal Bouchard is senior director of e-commerce at The North Face.

"As that tech matures, and you don't have to wear an alien headset and more regular people would use it, I think that's going to be a big play in retail," Emmons said. "In a virtual or augmented reality world, a pathway shows up on the store floor and leads me to the product I'm looking for. Or you pick up a top and you see a virtual top in a different pattern or color show up on the side. Maybe my digital store could pop up right in someone's living room. With virtual reality, my store could be anywhere."


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